One of the best ways to find out what travelers to Europe want is to ask the tour operators themselves, so we’re always glad when Kier Matthews from Europe Express calls Travel Agent’s New York office to share his insights on the latest trends.
One of the biggest trends Matthews has noticed over the past few years is a significant increase in demand for customized sightseeing tours. “When I started here three years ago, 80 percent of our sightseeing business was [package] tours and the rest was customized,” he recalled. “Now it’s flipped. It’s crazy!...Customers want just a car, a driver and a guide. They say, ‘These are the places I want to go, and these are the things I want to see.’ The true benefit to the agent is that they can show their client that they can truly customize even the sightseeing experience all throughout Europe.”
Perhaps hand-in-hand with this trend is the increase of small group tours, which are frequently multi-generational family trips that might be two grandparents, two parents and two kids. “They don’t need a traditional FIT service,” Matthews said. “They need a group product range. That’s up about 68 percent year over year.” The top destinations, he added, are the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Notably, he added, a lot of the multi-gen trips are pre- or post-cruise. “The Norwegian Epic sails round-trip from and to Barcelona,” Matthews offered by way of example. “But the passengers don’t see a lot of Spain on the trip, so they come a few days early and tour Barcelona, Madrid and Malaga and then board their cruise ship.”
The biggest news for Europe Express, Matthews said, is that by the end of their fiscal year in September, the company seems poised to have doubled their revenue over the last three years. “It’s primarily luxury agents and FIT specialists who are driving us,” he said. “The escorted tour model is for a segment of the population that is on a fixed budget and is aging. People on FIT trips are working—and working age—and they want vacations their way. They don’t want to be told where to go and what to do.”
Beyond the financial success, Matthews continued, the company’s air sales are up nearly 10 percent. “A lot of agents book their own air,” he acknowledged, “but because we pay commission on air now, we’re seeing a 9 percent increase year over year.”
While Europe’s economic struggles continue to make headlines in the financial columns, Matthews doesn’t believe the money issues of the destination country are a significant factor in where to go on vacation. “People don’t pay attention to the exchange rate until they’re ready to go,” he said. “They pay in advance through United States dollars. They’re not paying attention to the exchange rate until two weeks before departure. And the US economy is more stable now, so people have more freedom to travel. They feel more comfortable and secure.”